In a class of its own: The American College of Sofia

“What is the communicative value of this sentence?” asks Roumy Ivanova. Hands shoot up for the chance to answer.

We are sitting in the eighth-grade class of English as a Second Language at the American College of Sofia. The classroom is immaculately neat, free of idle chit-chat as Ivanova leads the class at a cracking pace, discipline tight and young brains being made to work. Somewhere beyond the trimmed lawns of the campus, visible outside the window dappled with the moisture of winter, is Bulgaria’s capital city. Inside the classroom, you would easily think you are sitting inside one of the more prestigious high schools in the United States.

Proceedings of the morning class opened with swift but careful scrutiny of homework. Exercises on quantifiers follow – the difference in when to use much, many or a lot. Everyone has a fair chance as Ivanova points from pupil to pupil to show whether they understand the correct usages. The vast majority do.

As we move along – on to the difference between “some” and “any” – the class is asked whether they have had exercises yet that morning. So they are told to stand up, and indicate the correct option either by raising one hand or both. It’s bracing stuff, and should keep blood flowing the brain.

Then, the difference between entrance and entry. “Who can give me an example of an entry?”. “An entry in a journal”. “An entry in a diary”. The approving nods are received gratefully. It’s clear that the no-nonsense yet engaging approach resonates with the youngsters.

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As the grammar exercises proceed, encounters with perhaps unfamiliar words or phrases are explained, frequently not without wit, as with a reference to addiction: “young minds are fertile ground for knowledge but also for addiction – so you guys should be careful,” the teacher admonishes, not without a hint of a smile.

The bell rings; the lesson plan has run to time, with not a moment wasted.

It’s time for a rapid stroll through the corridors, as pupils scurry from one class to the next, on to Canada’s Kateri Couture-Latour’s grade 11 biology class. A graduate of Ottawa’s Carleton University, Couture-Latour is leading the class through the intricacies of genetics, in particular (but in more layperson-usable terms than were in play) matters related to terminology and function regarding DNA. It matters much less the extent to which this reporter understood what they were all talking about than that the class clearly did. Similarly to the previous class, the pupils are actively engaged and, it seems, acquitting themselves well in the English-language terminology of the field.

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On, then, to Garrard Conley’s grade nine English Language and Literature class. Here, as the affable Conley keeps a watchful eye and periodically engages with the pupils, the class are clustered in threes and fours around their grouped desks, in low voices discussing their sonnet analysis exercise.

Here’s a short extract from the printed handout of their brief: “you must use the TPCASIT system of analysis, annotating for all elements of the poem. You will then provide a sophisticated analysis of the poem, relating it to theme. You must have a well-designed poster and/or Powerpoint (Prezi if you prefer) clearly illustrating what literary techniques you have found and how you have related these techniques to theme. Your job will be to ‘teach’ other students in the class about this poem”.

That’s not all. The next step for the pupils is to write their own sonnets, inspired by the sonnets that they have analysed, using the literary techniques that they have learnt. The handout includes the criteria by which success at this will be measured, with their peers – the others in the class – as the jury.

Just to add, and to underline, that from eavesdropping on proceedings and looking over some young shoulders as they collaborate on the exercise, it is clear that all discussion is in English. Beyond that, the rapport between Conley and his pupils is evident. It makes one want to return to hear the end product, the sonnets.

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What’s the overall aim of this approach to schooling, an approach that blends traditional Western standards with modern philosophies of tuition? (read: no pupil is likely to be dozing off or gazing out of the window; it’s quite possible, imagine that, they might well even look forward to going to school).

By its own description, the American College of Sofia provides a rigorous university preparatory education to its pupils.

“In addition to a strong emphasis on content mastery, ACS students are encouraged to think critically and to develop problem-solving skills and intellectual independence. We expect students to be able to articulate responses to questions during class as well as to ask insightful questions themselves, of the teacher, and of each other. Finally, we work hard to develop the formal writing and speaking skills of our students,” as the ACS website puts it.

For Bulgarian pupils, in grades 9 and 10 all courses are taught in English except Bulgarian and foreign languages. During grades 11 and 12, all courses are taught in English except Bulgarian language and literature, foreign languages, Bulgarian geography and philosophy (in grade 12), and some profile classes. Profiles are areas of academic concentration. All ACS students take English as their first profile and mathematics as their second profile. Choices for third profiles include chemistry, physics, humanities and computers.

As regards international pupils (meaning, those who are not Bulgarians), in the 11th grade, all of the college’s international students begin the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. Like ACS’s Bulgarian pupils, international students may also obtain the American high school diploma if they fulfill all additional requirements for this diploma.

Prior to the 11th grade, international students are placed in appropriate maths, science, foreign language, and social science/history classes to prepare them for the IB program. In some cases this may depend upon a student’s level of preparation in various subjects before enrolling at the College. When scheduling and course offerings permit, international students take classes with Bulgarian students.

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ACS has a mission statement, adopted in May 2015: “The American College in Sofia integrates the values and best practices of American pedagogy with the rich educational traditions of Bulgaria and Europe. We seek to develop critical thinking, lifelong intellectual curiosity, leadership, and collaboration among multi-talented students of various social, cultural, economic, and geographic backgrounds”.

It’s a noble aim. But beyond the words, in the classrooms it is being turned into reality – putting, one may say, ACS in a class of its own.

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The Sofia Globe staff

The Sofia Globe - the Sofia-based fully independent English-language news and features website, covering Bulgaria, the Balkans and the EU. Sign up to subscribe to's daily bulletin through the form on our homepage.